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Denise Robitaille


Pesky Customers

Using preventive action

Published: Tuesday, April 10, 2007 - 21:00

Many of you have probably had the occasional insane day when you thought: “This job would be so much easier if we didn’t have customers to deal with.” Apart from the demands for price concessions and the requests for unreasonable deliveries, there are a whole group of customer traits that can drive us batty.

As an auditor, I get to hear about all sorts of problems that have arisen because of something out of the company’s control—something that was caused by a customer’s error, failure or omission. After listening, I direct them back to the language of the standard. ISO 9001 doesn’t have an escape clause for when the customer screws up. It doesn’t say that it’s okay to guess at customer requirements if they don’t give you adequate information or that you’re off the hook for any other customer-spawned snafu.

With few exceptions, you can’t blame the customer for your failure to fulfill their requirements. The attempt to abdicate responsibility is particularly egregious in those instances where you have long established relationships with clients. 

Some of the practices that regularly affect fulfillment of the customer contract are:

  • Purchase orders that don’t specify the revision level of parts
  • Incomplete or ambiguous specifications
  • Undocumented product revisions
  • Oral approvals and authorizations
  • Delays in sending required materials, fixtures or documentation
  • Inadequate lead time
  • Insistence on the use of inferior subcontractors for outsourced processes.

    In each of these instances, the organization throws up its hands and says, “It’s not our fault. This customer does this to us all the time.” As with everything else that goes awry, assigning fault is a fruitless pursuit. Blaming the customer gets you nowhere. The customer may not always be right, but the customer is always the customer, and without customers you’re out of business. So get over it and decide what you’re going to do.

    Since you already have a track record with a customer, you should have data about their practices that create obstacles to your ability to serve them. Look to your processes and the ISO 9001 requirements for guidance. Three sub-clauses should help you out. Consider the following:

    7.2.3 Customer communication.

  • Do you have effective communication conduits with the customer?
  • Have you identified key personnel for differing issues, like engineering, purchasing and shipping?
  • Are there established protocols for what emails from customers stay in individuals’ password-protected in-boxes and which ones are forwarded to a shared drive so all functions have appropriate access?
  • Is there an established format to record authorizations and approvals for specification revisions or delivery changes?
  • Do you talk to your customers when their actions have contributed to the problem?

    This last bullet links directly to the next ISO 9001 requirement on the list: analysis of data.

    8.4 Analysis of data

  • Are you gathering data that will allow you to present objective evidence to the customer when you’re discussing your mutual problem?
  • If a supplier that your customer has specified is consistently late or habitually sends substandard components, do you have the substantiating data to show your customer?
  • Can you generate a report to demonstrate the actual date you received their parts (for installation into the product) in relation to order date and required date?
  • Are you presenting this data to the right decision maker at your customer’s facility?

    The analysis of data does more than just provide ammunition for discussions with customers. It should help you solve the problems. This takes us to the last ISO 9001 sub-clause on the list: preventive action.

    8.5.3 Preventive action

  • If you know that there is a potential for something to go wrong, shouldn’t your preventive action process kick in?
  • If the customer always keeps you waiting for first part approval before proceeding, what action can you take to mitigate the effect of their shortcoming on your performance?
  • Have you considered buffering the lead times to accommodate their delivery lapses?
  • If they’re constantly trying to make oral changes to drawings, can your organization develop a process for revising the drawings and sending them out for customer approval?

    Have you, in effect, implemented the requirements of your preventive action procedure and asked: “What could go wrong?” “What would cause it to go wrong?” and “What should we do about it?”

    Just because your customer’s processes are inadequate or uncontrolled doesn’t mean yours have to be. The focus of ISO 9001 is to achieve customer satisfaction by fulfilling customer requirements in spite of the customer’s shortcomings.

  • Discuss

    About The Author

    Denise Robitaille’s picture

    Denise Robitaille

    Denise Robitaille is the author of thirteen books, including: ISO 9001:2015 Handbook for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses.

    She is chair of PC302, the project committee responsible for the revision to ISO 19011, an active member of USTAG to ISO/TC 176 and technical expert on the working group that developed the current version of ISO 9004:2018. She has participated internationally in standards development for over 15 years. She is a globally recognized speaker and trainer. Denise is a Fellow of the American Society for Quality and an Exemplar Global certified lead assessor and an ASQ certified quality auditor.

    As principal of Robitaille Associates, she has helped many companies achieve ISO 9001 registration and to improve their quality management systems. She has conducted training courses for thousands of individuals on such topics as auditing, corrective action, document control, root cause analysis, and implementing ISO 9001. Among Denise’s books are: 9 Keys to Successful Audits, The (Almost) Painless ISO 9001:2015 Transition and The Corrective Action Handbook. She is a frequent contributor to several quality periodicals.